Story, Character, or World building

Aug 24, 2021 6:53 am

Which is more important to you: story, character, or world building?

I think we can agree that story and character are the primary elements for which we read books. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that while story is not everything, it is the main thing. Interesting characters can boost a good story experience up to great, but it's difficult even for great characters to carry a poor story. We can all relate to seeing our favorite actors in roles that did them no favors because of poor stories. If a character is really going to be memorable, that character needs a good story. World building is even one step further removed in importance than character in my opinion.

There are those who maintain that character is everything. I can understand that point of view. Some of my favorite characters in my own books have very minor roles and don't get to participate much in the story. One who comes to mind is the piano player in Justice in Season, but I doubt most readers will remember him because his part is so minor. So while I understand the argument--it's wrong. I can maintain interest in a book whose characters are not as memorable as I might wish if the story in which they're engaged also engages me.

Let's face it, we do a lot of projection. We project our own hopes, desires, likes, dislikes, expectations, and feelings upon the people we meet--until they burst that bubble. It's the same with fictional characters. We fill out those characters in our minds the way we want them to be. We fill in the blanks based on the little that we know about them from the story--until we learn something that forces us reform the character. However, if the story doesn't draw us inside--you know, if it doesn't make the movie play in your head at a speed that keeps you wanting more--the characters won't matter. Story makes the characters matter. Characters give the story greater life and clarity.

As for world building, it's mostly an issue in fantasy and science fiction. Think about it. Imagine your favorite movies. How much time did the director spend on shots of the scenery? How long must the camera linger on the smooth and elegant lines of the Enterprise? Some of that is super sweet. Too much becomes tedious and boring. I think I've heard Brandon Sanderson say that World building should follow the iceberg principle. Show the little bit above the surface, not the mass that is below. Everything doesn't have to be explained and described--in fact, most of it shouldn't be. Do we want to become involved in an exciting story with brief, interesting descriptions that are important to the development, or do we want to trudge through pages of geology, geography, religion, botany, etc, with a nod now and then to some semblance of a story? Of course the choice isn't usually so stark, but you see my point. On the other hand, if the world or setting is done well, it becomes a character of its own, and can launch a great story into the realm of truly awesome.

Do you agree? Do you think character is more important? Have I given short shrift to world building? Let me know.